The History of Sloss Furnaces

The History of Sloss Furnaces

Sloss Furnaces are a Birmingham staple, hosting many shows and even a haunted house throughout the year. But many people don’t know the deep history of Sloss Furnaces– a history that includes helping with war efforts, and enriching both the local and national economies.

At the core of all this history is one man: Colonel James Withers Sloss. Sloss was a merchant and railroad man from North Alabama. He played an important role in not only the creation of Sloss Furnaces, but also in the founding of the city of Birmingham itself. By convincing the L&N Railroad company to capitalize the completion of the South and North rail line through Jones Valley, Sloss unwittingly decided the location of the new city.

Sloss became involved in railroads in the 1850s and 15 years later ended up as president of the Nashville and Decatur Line. During this postwar period, he not only promoted the development of Southern rail, but became one of the chief proponents of Alabama’s post war industrial development. In 1871, he struck a deal with the L&N Railroad to complete a 67-mile gap of the South and North Railroad between Birmingham and Decatur. Ultimately reaching the Gulf of Mexico, the L&N invested more than $30 million in furnaces, mines, wharves, steamship lines, and other Alabama operations. By 1888, it was hauling annual tonnage of iron, coal, and other mineral products outweighing the nation’s entire cotton crop.

Sloss’s decision to bring in the L&N transformed Birmingham into a thriving community. Anxious to tap the rich mineral resources surrounding Birmingham, Sloss acquired 30,000 acres and formed the Pratt Coal and Coke Company. Pratt soon became the largest mining enterprise in the district. In the early 1880s, with the backing of Henry DeBardeleben, Sloss founded the Sloss Furnace Company, and two years later ‘blew-in’ the second blast furnace in Birmingham. Called City Furnaces, the plant was located at the eastern edge of downtown, at the intersection of two major railroads. By the 1880s, Birmingham was booming and had earned the nickname “The Magic City.”

Sloss retired in 1886 and sold the company to a group of financiers who guided it through a period of rapid expansion. The company reorganized in 1899 as Sloss-Sheffield Steel and Iron, although it was never to make steel. With the acquisition of furnaces and extensive mineral lands in northern Alabama, Sloss-Sheffield became the second largest merchant pig iron company in the Birmingham District.

James Withers Sloss continued to be interested in iron and steelmaking until his death in May of 1890. Praising Sloss, an obituary in the national trade journal, “Iron Age”, stressed “his farseeing discernment, indomitable energy and modern ideas.”

In this period of expansion, the company dealt with cultural changes that affected not only the workplace environment, but also the future of the company. Segregation affected the business, all the way down to how workers were labeled on the payroll. More than two thirds of the workforce was African American, and while they did the same work as their white colleagues, they were paid less and not given the appropriate titles.

Sloss received its National Historic Landmark designation in 1981 and opened its gates in September 1983 as a museum of the City of Birmingham. Its collection consists of two 400-ton blast furnaces and some forty other buildings.

Sloss is currently the only twentieth-century blast furnace in the U.S. being preserved and interpreted as an historic industrial site. The dramatic scale and complexity of the plant’s industrial structure, machines, and tools make the Sloss collection a unique contribution to the interpretation of twentieth-century ironmaking technology and presents a remarkable perspective on the era when America grew to world industrial dominance.

About two-thirds of the historic structures on the site were stabilized using the bond funds approved by Birmingham voters in 1977. Parts of the site were also adapted for use as a center for community and civic events and for an innovative program in metal arts. Sloss now hosts concerts, festivals, and conferences, as well as workshops and exhibitions of metal art. By helping people form new attachments to the old furnaces, these programs keep Sloss an active and important part of the community, as it was for almost a hundred years.

One of those events is the well known Sloss Music and Arts Festival, THIS July 15-16! The event is a curation of 40 bands on four stages, along with craft beer, creative cocktails, arts & crafts, live iron pouring demonstrations, and much more. Get your tickets today!